DALTON — A 49-year-old Dalton man stands accused of torching a small mountain of hay bales holding a political endorsement, a blaze that lit up the Friday night sky over Dalton and caused supporters to rally around a local farm.
Dalton police say Lonnie Durfee is due in Central Berkshire District Court Tuesday to answer a charge of burning personal property.
The Dalton police and fire departments responded to a fire at dusk at Holiday Brook Farm that was in the process of destroying most of the 19 wrapped hay bales that, the day before, had been painted with a message supporting the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
No one was hurt in the fire, which for a time forced travel delays on Route 9.
Dicken Crane, owner of Holiday Brook Farm, said he was running a tractor in a nearby field, baling hay around 6:30 p.m. Friday. On one pass, the massive bales with their political message — stacked three high in places — were fine.
“When I turned around again, it was ablaze,” he said.
A 911 call at 6:40 p.m. summoned local firefighters.
Crane said that just minutes before, at 6:32 p.m., a farm employee noticed that a substance that resembled motor oil had been spread across a portion of the bales.
Crane said even in the minutes after the fire that he believed the fire was deliberately set. “But it’s hard to explain. Six minutes later it was on fire, but there was nobody there,” he said Friday.
Police announced the arrest Saturday morning. A person who answered the phone that day at Durfee’s address said that he was in jail and that the caller could find him there.
The investigation is ongoing and anyone with information is asked to call the Dalton Police Department at 413-684-0300.
The bales with the message were standing on the south side of Route 9 across from Holiday Brook Farm, in a field near Cleveland Road.
Each of the bales weighs roughly 1,000 pounds. They contained silage for animal feed. The farm produces about 550 bales a year and needs to buy another 100, at $65 each, to meet its needs. Crane said the bales that burned were purchased.
Crane said the bales had been painted with the candidates’ names on Thursday. The top row read “USA,” with each letter on a different bale. The middle row sported U.S. flags and Joe Biden’s last name. The bottom row said “Vote,” “Harris” —a reference to Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential candidate — and the date, “2020.”
In the wake of the fire, a few salvaged bales enabled the farm to condense its message simply to the initials “B” and “H,” beside another bale reading “VOTE” and below a fourth bale painted with a replica of the U.S. flag.
Once the fire was extinguished, Crane inspected the debris and found that hay still inside the bales was cool to the touch. “It was not spontaneous combustion,” he said, a reference to fires that start naturally, including in silage.
Megan Whilden had made a trip past the hay bales to witness the scene — both before and after the fire.
“We drove that way to see the sign because I was so excited about it, we took some pictures and then went for a walk,” she said. “On the drive home there were police cars, smoke and flames. We were just in shock and horrified that someone would do that.”
Crane said Saturday he was relieved to hear of the arrest. He said the message on the bales reached farther than he expected.
“There has been such a positive response,” Crane said. “We see this is having a louder voice than we ever anticipated.”
On Sunday afternoon, Crane put up a new display on his farm. This time, the bales spelled out “love,” “unity,” and “respect.” When interviewed by The Eagle on Saturday, Crane said he did not plan to re-create the endorsement for Biden, the presidential candidate and former vice president, and his running mate, Harris. Instead, he planned to create a sign that he hopes promotes unity.
“The sign doesn’t have to be re-done, but we’re going to do something — that is for sure.” Crane said. “We don’t want to spread division, we want to unify people.”
A GoFundMe page created Saturday had exceeded its $1,200 as of mid-afternoon Sunday, with 48 donors providing $1,710 to compensate the farm for its lost silage.
In an interview, Crane said he would rather see people’s generosity used to promote voting.
“We want to encourage people to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union or any other site that encourages voting,” Crane said. “ACLU has a voter suppression program where people can donate to help promote voting.”